Go West, Biotech Battle

While most people in America will be keenly watching the Presidential election next month, agricultural and food companies will most likely be more interested in the outcome of California’s Proposition 37. If passed, this initiative would become the first in the nation to require that food products and produce sold in the state be labeled to indicate if they are made using biotech crops as a source. Processed foods would have to include the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” on either the front or back label. Whole foods such as sweet corn would have be labeled with a similar sign on the grocery shelf.

As you might expect, national food companies such as PepsiCo, ConAgra Foods and General Mills have contributed millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 37. So have large ag companies such as Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. A few trade groups such as the Council for Biotechnology Information and the Grocery Manufac­turers Association have also joined the fight against the measure.

Support for Proposition 37 has come primarily from organic food producers such as Organic Valley and Nature’s Path. Yet, the owners of some of the largest organic brands in the country — Kashi and Horizon Organic — are on the anti-labeling side in this fight.

And the stakes in this battle are potentially huge. According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, approximately 70% to 80% of the processed foods sold in the U.S. are made using biotech crops such as corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cotton oil.

Both sides in the fight over Proposi­tion 37 have their own reasons for their stand on the issue. According to the pro-Proposition 37 forces, consumers have a right to know what is in the products they buy. But according to the anti-Proposition 37 side, the initiative is likely to add $1.2 billion for California growers and food producers to implement the new labeling requirements, which could add up to $400 to the average family’s grocery bill.

Anti-Proposition 37 forces most likely fear what happened in the European Union, which passed a similar labeling measure back in 1997. There, food processors reformulated their products to avoid the use of biotech crop ingredients so no labeling was required.

In truth, I can appreciate both sides of this argument. On one hand, I agree that consumers have a right to know what ingredients are in the food products they buy. But on the other hand, singling out biotech crops — which have been approved by government agencies as safe for consumption — on the label seems a bit like ingredient profiling. And what of the label for something like beef jerky that might have been made with cattle that had been raised on biotech feed?

According to a poll conducted in July by the California Busi­ness Roundtable and Pepperdine University, Proposition 37 is favored by 65% of perspective voters. It will be interesting to see where this latest salvo in the fight over biotech crops ultimately lands.

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